UCO: A True Trailblazer in Developmental Disability Employment
By Barbara Linstrom
Getting Their Start
Started in 1974 as the Union County Industries Sheltered Workshop, it was originally led by the Union County Board of Developmental Disabilities and was essentially a governmental entity.
“Most jobs at the workshop then were very short-term and limited in nature. So, we would just get the employees trained and then the job would be finished,” says current CEO Dave Amerine.
By the late eighties, that limitation took a major turn when discussions began with Honda.
“We know the basic philosophy of Honda is to be in communities where communities embrace them,” he said. “They want to give back.”
Honda met with UCO to discuss the potential for diversification of its workforce.
They began trying a lot of different jobs with UCO such as stuffing mailings or putting together employee Christmas gifts. After UCO employees proved themselves capable, the discussion turned to longer-term projects.
Honda awarded UCO its first contract to assemble the Accord owner manual kits after a few years of piloting and learning and UCO became a full-fledged tier-one supplier in 2000.
Following success with Accord owner manual kits, UCO asked for additional business. Honda began adding in more plants and models to build to where UCO is today — a supplier for all the Honda plants in North America, including Canada and Mexico.
By 2007, UCO moved into a 72,000-square-foot building. Six years later, it was privatized as a not-for-profit business, supporting itself on business revenue.
Ahead of the Curve
In the 2020s, when the federal government mandated that segregated workshops needed to be separated from the County Boards of Developmental Disabilities, UCO was way ahead of the curve.
“We had a number of the workshops from the state of Ohio coming to see how we do what we do as they were trying to build their next model,” said Amerine. “The fundamental component that's got to be in place before a model like ours can succeed, is that standalone business model.”
The inclusive nonprofit center now employs 80 people with developmental disabilities — the majority of its 130-person staff. Another aspect that Amerine is especially thrilled about is that they have set up a way for staff to also have long-term savings.
“We’re one of the first organizations to use a version of the federal savings program for those with developmental disabilities, the ABLE Program,” he said. “The program is branded STABLE in Ohio and the accounts allow individuals to have some savings, without jeopardizing their Social Security Disability Income or Medicaid coverage.”
UCO also offers its employees the opportunity to work with a diverse mix of people and to receive competitive pay. It now has more than 150 customers and an annual revenue over $10 million. The lion’s share of their revenue comes from Honda as they now assemble over a million and a half owner manual kits a year.
“We’re way beyond the old sheltered workshop where they're cut off from community. It's inclusive and they're meeting other people, which is wonderful,” he said.
UCO also promotes its employees’ growth by challenging them with new skill sets through the diverse job offerings of its clients, including shredding services, sorting, pricing, and others.
“Part of our success is that we have the ability to move people through different jobs after they've managed one job, build their skillset, build their interest level, and keep them engaged,” said Amerine.
Back when UCO started, Amerine was attending Marysville High School. After serving as a health insurance compliance officer for years and volunteering for a couple of different developmental disabilities-serving organizations on the board of directors, he took over the helm of UCO in 2017.
“I have a niece with developmental disabilities, so I've always had the passion,” he says. “I’ve loved every minute of this job.”
The trailblazing path to sustained employment has certainly rung true.
“We have two employees who’ve been with us since 1974 and they are two of the happiest people you’ll ever meet. We’re excited to celebrate them when we hit our 50th year anniversary next July.”
With a master's degree from the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, Barbara Linstrom has worked overseas as a journalist, and as a digital media director at a PBS/NPR station in Southwest Florida.